Efforts are underway by both state and central governments to improve access to safe and adequate drinking water to people, and nationally, as on 31 December 2018, 79% of rural habitations had been covered at 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) but only 47% at 55 lpcd. Yet, in spite of the big push towards piped water supply in rural areas, the coverage continued to be poor. The November 2019 Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) data maintained by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) showed that the connections reached only around 18.4% of the households.
With the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission, the government plans to attain full coverage as regards piped water supply to all rural households by 2024.
What are the lessons that can be learnt from past programmes?
Jal Jeevan Mission is preceded by several programs over the last six decades, the most notable being the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), which has now been subsumed under the Jal Jeevan Mission. The NRDWP was a centrally sponsored scheme launched in 2009 aimed at providing every person in rural India with adequate, safe water for drinking, cooking and other domestic basic needs in a sustainable manner. Financial and technical assistance was provided to the states to supplement their efforts to provide adequate safe drinking water to install rural drinking water connections.
However, NRDWP was marred by implementation deficits such as - incomplete, abandoned and non-operational works, unproductive expenditure on equipment, lack of thrust on source sustainability, poor operation and maintenance (O&M) of the systems, inadequate focus on providing safe drinking water to water quality affected habitations, and gaps in procurement and contractual management.
Poor fund management
The target under the NRDWP was to provide 40 lpcd water (later revised to 55 lpcd) through piped water supply tap connections to 35% of rural households by 2017 and subsequently to the entire population in rural areas by 2030 at an estimated cost of Rs 6 lakh crore. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on NRDWP (2018) notes that despite spending 90% of the allocation of Rs 89,956 crore (central share of 43,691 crore and state share of Rs 46,265 crore) over the period 2012-2017, the programme failed its targets by a half.
The CAG report blames it on poor execution and weak contract management among other things. The availability of funds declined during 2013-14 and 2016-17 due to reduced central allocation and inability of the states to increase their own financial commitment. The CAG report indicates that there were delays of over 15 months in release of central share to nodal/implementing agencies in states.
Though, Jal Jeevan Mission professes to be more outcome-oriented and better monitored, whether it will be able to allocate resources in a more dynamic fashion remains to be seen. As per a budget brief on NRDWP by the Centre for Policy Research, while the GoI has released more than its allocated share, release of state share has been low across the years. Also, expenditure as a proportion of funds available has been steadily decreasing over the years and in FY 2018-19 till 31 December 2018, 59% of the total funds available for NRDWP had been spent, which is far lower than that in previous years.
Problem of slip-back
The NRDWP marked a shift from an emphasis on providing physical infrastructures like sanitary wells, handpumps etc., to a techno-sociological approach seeking active participation of the people. For the first time, NRDWP guidelines (2010) mainstreamed the ‘demand-responsive community participation based approach’ in a shift from the earlier ‘government-oriented supply-led approach’.
It also defined the unit of coverage as household and not habitation. Based on this, a habitation cannot be termed fully covered unless 100% households have drinking water security. Again, the data of the past few years indicates that not many of the habitations were fully covered and received much below 55 lpcd. The rate of increase in coverage status has been gradual and slip-back of covered habitations has been a serious problem. Most habitations are partially covered and not fully covered.
While the NRDWP guidelines were silent on the exact process of the labelling of fully covered and partially covered habitations, the Jal Jeevan Mission has ensured that functionality is defined as having infrastructure, i.e. household tap connection providing water in adequate quantity (55 lpcd) of prescribed quality (BIS:10500) on regular basis (every day or as decided by Gram Panchayat and/ or its sub-committee). Apart from quantity, functionality of tap connections has been categorized based on parameters such as quality and regularity. The functionality assessment criterion also includes long-term source and system sustainability.
Poor coverage due to scheme failure
A study on the impact of sector reform on rural drinking water schemes in Raigad, Maharashtra by Prasad et al indicates that “Drinking water coverage status is poorer on the ground and scheme failures are more widespread… The causes of scheme failure - technical, socio-economic and administrative have largely remained unchanged, in spite of the changes in policy regimes. Poor capacity and expertise of state agencies is the main cause for poor outcomes and building these will require infusion of new knowledge and practices.”
Like in Jal Jeevan Mission, the NRDWP too had an elaborate set of guidelines related to community participation at all stages and demand-led service delivery; institutional arrangements at various levels for planning and implementation; formation of village committees for O&M; mechanisms for monitoring of the scheme; modalities for initiation and hand-over of the scheme and so on. It too called for decentralised approach through panchayati raj institutions and community involvement, building of data repository, use of management information systems, reporting of financials under various NRDWP heads such as coverage, quality, sustainability etc.
Clarity needed on role of VWSC and Gram Panchayat
Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, the planning and delivery mechanism comprises of a four-tier institutional arrangement. Experience from the NRDWP indicates that the apex level National Drinking Water and Sanitation Council that was meant to coordinate and ensure convergence remained largely defunct. The agencies at the State level and below such as the State Water and Sanitation Mission, State Technical Agency, and Block Resources Centres were under-performing or were not set up in many States leading to deficiencies in the annual action plans at various levels.
At the village level, the institutional arrangement under Jal Jeevan Mission comprises of Gram Panchayat and/or its sub-committees viz. Village Water Sanitation Committee (VWSC)/ Paani Samiti. Under NRDWP, it was observed that VWSC’s often do not represent all beneficiaries, mostly exist only on paper and that decisions are in fact taken by the village elite. Gram Panchayats were responsible for scheme maintenance though for major repairs they could approach the Zilla Parishad. Daily operations were managed by beneficiary user groups in habitations. For repairs, outside their means or to waive off electricity bill arrears, the habitations requested the Gram Panchayat for fund allocation.
Gram Panchayats were at the end of the day responsible for the scheme. The extent of financial support that a habitation received from the Gram Panchayats post-handover of the scheme depended on the influence of the habitation in the Gram Sabha. There are numerous instances where after the scheme stopped operating after a few years in a habitation, it was never revived for want of major repairs unless some important politician took interest.
The operational guidelines of Jal Jeevan Mission refer to Gram Panchayat and VWSC reciprocally. There needs to be better clarity on the role of each of these institutions in various stages especially in O&M to add a layer of accountability.
Under NRDWP, insufficient source strength was one of the biggest reasons for failure of schemes and source strengthening measures were ignored during the design of the systems, even when funding was set aside for this. Not many schemes tried to improve or maintain source yield by implementing recharge structures. In many cases, drinking water sources are becoming contaminated due to natural and man-made causes.
Under Jal Jeevan Mission, mandatory source sustainability measures like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and other water conservation measures along with greywater management (including reuse) are proposed to be undertaken. However, there is no clarity on funding for source sustainability measures. It just mentions “the Central and State Finance Commission grants can be used for taking up the source sustainability and greywater management activities.” Relying on watershed structures built under convergence programmes through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Emplyment Guarantee Scheme, Integrated Watershed Management Programme etc. by various implementing agencies may not be good idea in the absence of their clear impact on source sustainability.
These issues need to be addressed in order to align the Jal Jeevan Mission to community requirements and manage the resource in a sustainable manner.